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Arthritis vs. Tendonitis: How to Tell the Difference

 Arthritis vs. Tendonitis: How to Tell the Difference

Americans and joint pain are no strange bedfellows — more than 92 million people in the United States report doctor-diagnosed joint pain or arthritis symptoms. While arthritis is certainly the main culprit behind joint pain, tendonitis can also be a guilty party.

If you’re hobbled by joint discomfort, and you want to narrow down the pool of suspects, Jason LaMendola, PT, and the team here at TLC Physical Therapy think it’s a good idea to start with arthritis versus tendonitis.

These diagnoses are two very distinct conditions, with some similarities and some differences. Let’s take a look.

Brief explanations of arthritis and tendonitis

A good first step is to provide very basic definitions of both conditions, which can be tricky with arthritis, which is far from basic.

There are more than 100 different forms of arthritis, which is more of a catchall term to describe a condition that leads to joint pain and inflammation. The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA), which affects more than 32.5 million people in the US. With OA, protective cartilage inside the joint breaks down, which leads to pain and inflammation as the bones rub together.

Outside of OA, some other common forms of arthritis include:

The definition for tendonitis, on the other hand, is far simpler. Tendons are soft tissues that connect muscles to bone. If you overstress these tissues, they can develop tiny tears that lead to pain and inflammation, called tendonitis.

Differences between arthritis and tendonitis

If you’re experiencing discomfort and you want to figure out whether it might be arthritis or tendonitis, here are some good rules of thumb:


Identifying the exact location of your discomfort is a good first step in diagnosing your problem. For example, is the discomfort in your ankle, or is it confined to the Achilles tendon that’s attached to your ankle? Or, does your elbow hurt, or is the pain in your forearm? Really narrowing down where the pain stems from can help us determine whether a tendon is the main problem or something in the joint.

Type of pain

Many forms of arthritis often start with intermittent pain that comes and goes with activity. Slowly, the pain can turn into a more consistent dull ache and increasing stiffness in the joint.

The pain is more acute with tendonitis and often goes away with rest.


Another way to differentiate between tendonitis and arthritis is to explore how the pain cropped up. Was it after you changed your running distance or surface? This might point toward a tendon problem. Or, if you’re engaging in the same activity but feeling a background pain that worsens as you continue, this might indicate degenerative arthritis.

While these attributes can provide us with some clues, it’s worth noting that these differences are subtle, and one can very easily mistake arthritis for tendonitis and vice versa. The best thing to do is see one of our experts for a proper diagnosis, as the physical therapy approaches to each of these conditions are different. 

To schedule your evaluation, please contact one of our offices on the North and South Shores of Staten Island, in Englishtown, New Jersey, or Midtown, Manhattan, in New York City.


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